Starting Out: my fears as a beginner

1285351927526757201baby-chicken-hiI don’t have many records from my first days and years doing contact improvisation. I’m not sure why; maybe I just wasn’t that affected by starting the form? But, no, I think I was having lots of feelings and thoughts and stuff, and regularly having my mind blown. Just for whatever reason, I didn’t write much about it during that time.

I find that unfortunate given where I find myself these days—increasingly, having difficulty remembering what it’s like to start out, with all the uncertainty and questions of being a newbie. But I’d like to remember and reconnect to those times, to relate to and help out those who are starting out—as well as to experience the nostalgia of returning to times both simpler and more complex. :)

So this might be the first of an occasional series called Starting Out, where I give advice to beginners or reflect on my own beginning years in CI.

I’d like to start this series with notes from a piece of paper I unearthed dated from November 2004, one of my rare writings on CI from those early years. Fourteen years ago! when I had been dancing for about two years. On that piece of paper, I wrote the following list, “What I’m most afraid of in contact”; I’ve lightly edited it for clarity.


 What I’m most of afraid of in contact

  • losing control
  • being too affectionate
  • misreading my partner
  • dancing when they don’t want to dance
  • being affectionate in a wrong or inappropriate way
  • ending too soon
  • missing a chance at a great dance
  • over-committing/under-committing
  • not doing the “right” dance for the moment

Aside from the somewhat egotistical and confessional desire to share personal past thoughts, I figured this might be useful for someone to see. Maybe some of these sound familiar? And maybe this list can somewhat normalize the doubts and insecurities that relative beginners might be feeling.

Looking back on this 14 years later, it’s funny to think about how these things have changed and haven’t changed. I’m pretty sure I’ve done all of these things over the last 14 years, and what has mostly changed is my concern about these things. Some of these things just seem less likely than in the past.

For instance, “losing control”—oh, I might lose control for a second or so, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t lose control in any significant way. I’m not really sure what I meant here. I have a feeling I was worried about something much more dire—some emotional or physical loss of control that would result in my doing something embarrassing, dangerous, or ill-advised. Something like that could happen still, but it seems unlikely. I also have lower expectations that a “great” dance is possible at any particular moment, so I’m less worried about potentially missing it.

On the other hand, after #metoo and 14 years of learning more about issues of sexuality and gender in CI, I’m perhaps more concerned than ever about “being affectionate in a wrong or inappropriate way,” especially as the definition of that becomes expanded and more nuanced for me.

I can’t say I remember what I meant by all of these. “[B]eing too affectionate”—is that the same as being inappropriately affectionate? I suspect it’s a little different. I think I meant, to some degree, just embarrassing myself by, I don’t know, confessing to someone who was clearly uninterested that I adored her eyes. Not that that would be inappropriate, but that I’d look like a lovesick puppy. I’m afraid I might have been a lovesick puppy through a significant portion of my first years in CI.

“[E]nding too soon” is kind of funny to read. For years now, I’ve dealt with the problem of ending too soon by simply not ending my dances. Oh, I’ll occasionally end a dance, maybe more often in the last 6 months as I’ve been experimenting with changing things up, but my default pattern is to keep on dancing until my partner ends the dance or the space closes. If I’m tired, I slow down. If I don’t like the dance, I try to adjust it or ask for something different. If I’m uncomfortable, I tell my partner why. I figure, as long as my partner’s willing to keep staying in (which is a pretty rare situation), why not keep working on getting to know each other and develop our dance relationship? So that’s how I solved that one.

Something that seems missing from this list is anything about social acceptance or loneliness. I hear this as a major issue with beginners: worry that they’re not liked, that they’re not popular enough, that people won’t dance with them. I’m not sure why this didn’t make my list; I think maybe because I was part of a pretty warm community in Los Angeles, and maybe by two years in I had found a niche of dance partners and friends. I think people tend to experience loneliness and a sense of being on the outside in the beginning, or when they’re in a new situation: attending a large weekend jam for the first time, for instance. I’ve had plenty of this kind of uncertainty since, but apparently not just then.

Another something that seems unusually absent is anything about not being good enough. I hear a lot of newer dancers express anxiety around not being graceful enough (sigh) or strong enough, or flexible enough, or not being able to do certain moves. While some of this is probably captured in “missing a chance at a great dance” and “not doing the ‘right’ dance for the moment,” I accepted pretty early on the message that I didn’t have to be a certain way in CI, that wherever I was at was okay. And I started CI with very low expectations as to my abilities. I never saw myself as an athletic or graceful person, and didn’t even really need or want that for myself. As far as I can recall, my attitude early was just to show up, get some exercise, and keep doing it.

I remain a bit bewildered that (1) I ever got decent at it, and (2) it’s become such an important practice for me for such a long time. How exactly did that happen?

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